Saturday, December 11, 2004

Beinart and the "softs"
I finally got around to reading Peter Beinart's much-discussed article in The New Republic, which recommends a purge of the anti-war left from the big tent. While he makes some good points, I remain largely unconvinced by his analysis. I don't think Beinart really understands what motivates the trepidation some liberals feel about some aspects of the war on terror

Beinart says that just as the Democrats purged themselves of anti-anti-communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, today's party needs to recognize the damage that its pacifist wing is doing at the electoral box office. He also argues that the fight against terrorism is a world-historical struggle comparable to the battle against Soviet communism. Beinart writes:

But, despite these differences [between al-Qaeda and the Soviets], Islamist totalitarianism -- like Soviet totalitarianism before it -- threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

I have three main issues with this analysis. The first is partly semantic. "Islamist" totalitarianism isn't the main issue here. For one thing, the term "Islamist" is typically used to describe any political movement which is motivated by the principles of Islam, and those movements are not necessarily totalitarian, even if they are illiberal in many respects. There are many shades of authoritarianism in between Jeffersonian democracy and Taliban-style Islamic theocracy. As Noah Feldman argues in After Jihad, the United States needs to recognize that Islamist democrats are, in many places, our natural allies against fossilized dictatorships and authoritarian thugs, particularly in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

The second problem with this formulation is that it's terrorism, specifically nuclear terrorism, rather than totalitarianism per se, which threatens the United States. Al-Qaeda-style totalitarianism is actually not a particularly powerful political force in the Middle East, if we consider power to be related to capacity for triumph in democratic elections. Only two states -- Iran and Saudi Arabia -- are controlled by regimes that can be classified as totalitarian and Islamic (and even in Iran there is much more openness and dissent than there was in a place like Stalin's USSR), and their total population is miniscule in strategic terms. The only regional power that seems seriously threatened by Islamic totalitarianism as a political (as opposed to a strategic terrorist) threat is Pakistan, and even there the possibility of a real takeover is probably quite exaggerated. As a world-historical struggle, this fight is puny next to the struggle against communism, which at its high point dominated the two largest countries in the world, and had serious influence in a third (India), not to mention countless satellite states in the West.

My second big problem with Beinart's analysis is that mid-century liberals set out as their goal not defeating but rather containing communism. I don't think there are many liberals who dispute the idea that the United States should be working against the emergence of Iranian-style theocracy in the Muslim world. The trouble with using anti-totalitarianism as a tool for liberal electoral realignment is that totalitarianism is in pretty tough shape to begin with. It's garden-variety authoritarianism that's the problem in most Middle Eastern states, and there's no clear way out for policymakers. Part of the reason is that the foreign policy establishment can't decide whether it's better to support the King Abdullah's of the world or to allow moderate Islamists to come to power through the ballot box. But there's no doubt that if we stand around longing for the Middle Eastern Congress Party to bring liberal democracy to the region, we'll have a very long and unproductive wait on our hands indeed.

The third problem is that I think reasonable people can disagree about how grave the threat of Islamic terrorism truly is. While Beinart states that only 4% of Democratic delegates cited national security issues as their biggest concern (compared to 15% of Republicans), this doesn't necessarily demonstrate that liberals aren't "serious" or "decent" about the issue. All it expresses is the perfectly reasonable belief that the United States has equally, if not more important issues to deal with simultaneously. While I don't doubt Beinart's assertion that Al-Qaeda has put some thought into nuking New York City, this has absolutely no relationship to how likely such an event actually is. Democratic calmness about terrorism might just reflect confidence in the ability of our military forces and intelligence services to prevent the next 9/11, or worse, a nuclear or biological attack on U.S. soil. It doesn't mean that most Democrats believe terrorism is just a wedge issue cooked up by Karl Rove (although it has been treated that way, ironically, by Republicans).

I for one, believe that Bush and the Republicans threaten American liberalism every bit as much as Al-Qaeda. This does not mean, let me be clear, that I think Bush is worse than Bin Laden, or even in the same moral ballpark. But aside from the remote threat of nuclear terrorism, which is, I believe, being adequately and directly addressed by our leadership (if not by Bush himself, who wanted to cut funding for the loose Russian nukes program), the looming threat of illiberal, right-wing anti-labor, anti-science, and anti-enlightenment policies is every bit as important as the latest video from Al-Qaeda. The Bush agenda represents a direct repudiation of the mid-century liberal capitalist compromise which made America the first majority middle-class country in the history of the world -- and which, might I add, gave America the financial and moral wherewithal to do battle with the Soviets in the first place.

Finally, I think Beinart is playing right into conservative hands with his clarion call for factional warfare. The Democratic Party needs a lot of things right now, but one of them is not for one wing of the party to turn on and demonize the other. We don't need it any more than the Republicans need to cannibalize the flat-earth, creationist wing of their party. Big tents are big tents, after all, for a reason -- without them, both parties would splinter into competing electoral coalitions, giving their opponents victories in race after race. That's not to say that I think the next Democratic presidential candidate ought to be sharing stages with Michael Moore, but at the same time, Beinart needs to recognize that jettisoning everyone who enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11 (which grossed $130 million in the U.S.), is only going to eviscerate what's left of the Democratic coalition, as well as playing into our opponents' hands as a weak party full of anti-American pacifists. The relationship of the party to Michael Moore should be the same as that of the Republicans with the Falwell-Robertson crowd -- quiet toleration.

But Beinart is right that the liberals need a serious foreign policy vision, that harnesses the positive transformative power of American liberty and marries it to the liberal concern for the environment and human rights. For one thing the Democrats need to co-opt and get serious about Bush's "freedom" discourse. As someone who believes that the gradual spread of liberal democratic institutions is the only real hope for humanity, this would certainly appeal to me. Many of Bush's most rhetorically inspiring moments have come when he talks about the need to increase the scope of human liberty, and about the moral imperative of freedom. But Beinart is wrong that the way to unite Democrats or liberals is to push this fight against "Islamic totalitarianism"; the answer should be to use the galvanizing and righteous rhetoric of human rights and development. However, you're always going to run into cynicism on the left because the U.S. has to make strategic compromises with dictators (as it is currently doing in Uzbekistan and elsewhere) in order to protect its long-run interests. Still Beinart is right that the Democrats should be harsh with those who think that the entire issue of terrorism has been invented out of whole cloth by the Republicans for partisan advantage or imperialist expansion.

Terrorism is indeed a threat, and the United States should be standing against the spread of totalitarian Islamic governments. But the Democrats need to work on improving their message and their credibility, rather than committing themselves to some bloody inter-party reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with TNR's foreign policy inclinations.


At 6:11 PM, Blogger jdeadzone said...

Hey David, your response to Peter Beinart's article in the New Republic feels much more comfortable to me than his article did. I have this nauseous feeling when people talk about the "war on terrorism" and the Cold War in the same breath. The world is a dangerous place but nothing like the level of danger that this administration has been promoting. To say that these Islamic groups require the levels of world angst and mobilization that were required during the Cold War is nonsense. I was very happy to read your perspective on this and hope that the Democratic Party can find a new voice to expand on the true goals of liberal democratic society in the next election.

Your man in Connecticut


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